On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior
By Shusaku Endo
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
The Bible has much to say about faith, but what exactly is it? Chapter Five of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well examines the virtue through a discussion of Shusaku Endo’s Silence.
As Karen wrote
What is faith? We use the word in so many ways. We can have faith in a person or an institution. The law might consider a transaction to be one made “in good faith.” We describe our level of self-confidence as the amount of faith we have in ourselves. But faith as a virtue has a particular meaning, one expressed in the Bible when it explains that faith comes from the grace of God, not from human works (Eph. 2:8–9). Faith is the “instrument” that brings us to the Christ who saves us.
Faith, along with hope and love, is a theological virtue. The theological virtues differ from the cardinal virtues because they are not attained by human power but come from God. Conferred by God, these virtues provide “an ennobling of man’s nature” beyond natural human ability, “something essentially inhuman.” They are called theological virtues because their object is God, they assist us in seeking and finding God, and they come to us by God’s grace alone. The theological virtues differ in their origin, but like the other virtues, they can become excellent through practice. Thus faith, “over time through the hard work of habituation,” can become a “consistent and enduring quality of one’s character.”
The excellence of one’s faith can be measured a number of ways: by the strength of one’s conviction, by the response to that conviction, and by the actual trust one places in the object of faith. Similarly, a colleague who is a New Testament scholar describes faith as having three primary elements: belief (cognitive), trust (relational), and fidelity (obedience). Consider, for example, the faith a child has in a parent: the child may believe that she should trust her parents, and she may obey them, but she may do so without trusting them. On the other hand, a child could believe in and trust her parents—and willfully disobey anyway. Some doubts cannot be expressed apart from faith in God. “Thus, rather than having faith in faith itself, as a point of certainty that relies on our volition only, true faith is a childlike trust in God, who allows his children to question him as they might question their earthly parent, and to do so in the certainty of the relational knowledge and trust of the Father.”
In what way is faith as a theological virtue different from the classical virtues Aristotle wrote about?